Bandersnatch (Netflix)

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If you work in interactive narrative at all, there was a period recently where you could not go anywhere without people asking your opinion of Bandersnatch, Netflix’s branching-narrative episode of Black Mirror.

Because I am ornery and/or busy and/or was sick part of the relevant time, I didn’t watch it then. Still, I was aware that IF folks felt

  • annoyed that people were treating this as massively innovative when there are tens of thousands of works, produced over the past fifty plus years, exploring the possibilities of interactive story, including quite a lot specifically of interactive film if we’re narrowing the gaze to just that
  • disappointed that a lot of the choices were kind of basic
  • weary at the prospect of yet another Author’s First Interactive Work about free will vs chance, fate, and external control — this theme being (for obvious reasons) not exactly new in the interactive narrative canon
  • excited by the hope that this meant big commercial possibilities for interactive story
  • like ignoring Bandersnatch and playing more Cragne Manor

I have now watched, and here is my opinion, now that no one is asking.

The short version: I found Bandersnatch slightly more satisfying than a lot of my friends did, perhaps because I happen to have landed on an ending that is, I gather, rare.

At the same time, I had various criticisms of it. Some amount to “this is a first interactive work by someone new to the possibilities, and it’s designed for an audience that is also not particularly literate in interactive fiction, and I guess that’s to be expected.” Others are more serious issues with the messages and themes.

Long version below the fold.

The core story involves a young man named Stefan who is trying to make a computer game version of the eponymous Bandersnatch. The book he’s replicating is a beloved choose-your-own-adventure-style novel by the (criminal, deceased) Jerome F. Davies. Meanwhile, Stefan has been traumatized by the death of his mother in a train crash — a crash for which she would not have been present if she hadn’t been delayed by his search for a stuffed rabbit. (Am I the only one who felt a faint echo of Donnie Darko here? Evidently not.)

Structurally, it’s sort of a time-cave/gauntlet mashup. The branches can lead to rather different interpretations of reality, and some of them produce death/failure pretty early on; however, if you reach an early bad ending, the story automatically encourages you to rewind, in a way that feels like it’s still part of the same overall experience. Stefan wakes over and over again, from things that might be bad endings or might be dreams, in the manner of Groundhog Day. (We don’t have to rewind all the way back to Stefan’s birth, as in Life After Life.)

I won’t try to re-summarize the entire structure given that other articles have already detailed how to reach the major endings and which endings are most significant.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Bandersnatch. It’s acted well, in a way that reminds me how much is lost from video games with good-but-not-great CGI performances. The production is smooth and glossy, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way: when the story restarts from the beginning because you’ve reached a suboptimal conclusion, Bandersnatch automatically recaps everything that has happened up to your next meaningful choice point, in a way that recapitulates the conventions of television (appropriately! this is interactive TV!) and feels very accessible. A lot of craft has gone into making this an experience that a television viewer could experience without too much sense of alienation.

Then there’s the portrayal of 1980s gaming Britain. This fits at the nexus of two things I know reasonably well (1980s IF, the UK) but I didn’t directly experience them in combination, and I enjoyed the pairing as both familiar and strange. Carl Muckenhoupt read the British-80s-game-scene portrayal as a bit condescending; I read it more as self-deprecating, as a lot of representations of the recent past tend to be on British TV.

Possibly the choice of setting made me more tolerant than perhaps some other IF fans would be with the couple of narratively vacant choices like what music to listen to. They seem to exist to get the viewer used to making choices early in the story, and to prove that there are perceivable consequences for those choices, without the risk of screwing anything up in an important way. But for me, they also drew my attention to the aesthetic details of this particular setting.

So while I share the view that “which breakfast cereal do you want” is a pretty dull choice to lead off with, I was maybe a little more willing to find value in that than some other viewers.

*

Here’s something else I did like: a choice framed as a puzzle challenge, but that actually functioned to test the audience’s interests.

At one point (or more than one point, depending on how you play), you can direct Stefan to the basement, where his father has a safe with a hugely ornate keypad lock. You can choose between two combination words to enter. Both of the words are thematically resonant in some way; neither has been unequivocally established as the Right Answer.

So the question is, what are you expecting to find in these drawers? What combination do you think the father would use to lock up his safe? Who do you think he is, and what do you think he’s up to?

And it’s this that determines what you see afterward, and what is “actually” inside.

*

There are an assortment of issues, both structural and thematic. Others have pointed out how inconsistent the piece is, how it doesn’t seem able to make up its mind about what it wants to explore. Different endings of the story are about radically different things, from the nature of grief to the more grotesque aspects of contemporary entertainment. These segments are presented with different degrees of self-awareness, and arguably none of the themes really has room to breathe.

There is a point in Bandersnatch that invites you to tell the protagonist about Netflix, which feels like the world’s very worst product placement because it’s mandatory, participatory placement… of a product you’ve already bought. Ew.

I mean, I get the idea. I’m supposed to be startled that I the player am an actual character in the story. But I’ve seen this gag a lot of times before, a lot a lot. Even before interactive fiction, even before computers; before If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler cast the reader as a character; before play-going audiences had to clap for Tinkerbell. There are jokes in Aristophanes where the characters on stage notice those dolts sitting in the theatre. It’s not a new gambit.

So what stands out about it is the Netflix self-promotion.

Follow the story down that road, and you soon reach a choice about whether you wouldn’t like to see your entertainment with a bit more action than you’ve seen so far. Your options are “Yes” and “Fuck yeah.” My desired response was “No, I have experienced uncountably many generic fight scenes and I don’t find them especially revealing or engaging or fun, please show me more about people talking to each other.”

I was out of luck there, though. Face-kicking ensued.

*

Abigail Nussbaum writes about the story’s portrayal of mental illness as both likely violent and a prerequisite to creative success. I share the dislike of this pairing, and I’d recommend a viewing of Nanette for anyone who thinks it’s worth being mentally ill in order to be creative. Perhaps this was less an intentional decision than it was the effect of recasting Lovecraftian tropes about madness-inducing tomes into 1982.

Maybe paradoxically, I did in fact rather like the sequence where Stefan goes to visit Colin, another game-maker who alone seems to be aware of the alternate pasts of the story. Stefan says he’s blocked on his game. Colin tells him (I paraphrase): “You’re in the hole… you’re in a fight with your own head,” and then offers him help.

The help turns out to be LSD, and it goes off into a hallucinatory sequence that ends badly, perhaps because we can’t show people doing drugs on TV without being punished for it.

What I liked, though, was the bit before that: the casual, comradely acknowledgement that being in the midst of a creative project can be hard and confusing, and that what Stefan is experiencing is not unique.

*

My final ending was the one in which the protagonist manages to rewind time to the day in his childhood when his mother died; find a stuffed bunny without which he refused to leave the house; and join his mother on the crashing train, where he dies. It turns out that he was just remembering/imagining this sequence while actually grown up in his therapist’s office, but remembering it causes his death in the modern day as well.

According to the ending-analyses I linked above, this is the most difficult of endings to reach, but from my perspective it is also the most emotionally resonant. Young Stefan’s stuffed bunny was taken from him, in different versions of the story

  • the better to control him and create a memory of trauma as part of a government experiment
  • because the stuffed bunny was “sissy”
  • because his grandfather thought it was overly permissive to let him have the stuffed bunny (probably also for gender-related reasons)

and the consequence of this deprivation is that he loses his mother, is estranged from his father, and becomes (maybe) the pawn of government control.

To undo this feels like the healing of an old wound. That wound consisted not just of his mother’s death, but of the social/paternal/governmental pressure to be a certain kind of person, to give up his stuffed bunny, to lose the more connected and perhaps the more female-coded parts of himself.

This I found more truthful than any of Bandersnatch’s other questions about whether we do or don’t have free will. We do, I believe; but we are all, also, products of the culture in which we grow up. Our conditioning makes some options seem impossible, or makes them completely invisible to us.

Stefan never has the option to connect meaningfully with Colin, his game-writing idol, in a way that would have really helped him out of the maze. Stefan never has the option to talk open-heartedly with his father, or to make real progress with his therapist. Stefan is always limited by a loss he suffered long ago.

*

This could have been a stronger piece of work, and it could have made stronger use of the power of interactivity, if it had been written with more experience of interactive affordances, and for an audience with greater interactive literacy.

There’s a tendency for critics from other media to see interactive works as gimmicky, and I think it’s partly because a first interactive work rarely succeeds in escaping the author’s surprise at the nature of his new medium. Common for such pieces to circle around what does it mean to give the player some level of control over where the story goes? and how does that reflect our own levels of choice in the real world? — even though there is much more that interactive stories can communicate.

At the same time, people good at television made Bandersnatch, and that does give it some important strengths. It may reach and intrigue viewers who might never have considered any of the other forms of interactive narrative.

7 thoughts on “Bandersnatch (Netflix)

  1. My general hot-take reaction was just puzzlement, since it’s not even the first interactive work on Netflix. (It’s the first one “for adults” but a lot of people seemed to drop the “for adults” part; there’s a Puss in Boots interactive story and the interactive Minecraft Story Mode also appeared before Bandersnatch did.)

  2. I really enjoyed Bandersnatch, also holding off on it – I was busy and wanted to wait for a time to sit down properly and pay attention – I managed not to read any spoilers except it was about IF and game design…

    Maybe because I just wrote a game that was all about repeat-change something-restart try again. It almost seemed as if Black Mirror produced this specifically *for me*. I’m the exact generation who forgot and needed reminding how awesome Thompson Twins and Tangerine Dream could be. Repetition is rewarded and I replayed to see every permutation. I wanted to see what happened in both versions of the balcony scene. When Stefan started freaking out that he was being “controlled” I specifically didn’t make a choice and let him decide what happened so as not to contribute to his anxiety. Even though the “Netflix” section seemed (and likely was) odd product-placement, it led to the even bigger break (if you escape the therapist fight through the window) that it’s all a movie. In that case, I re-looped and the second time decided to play my role as omnipresent entity properly, choosing not to break the wall and subsequently Stefan’s mind, showing the dreaded symbol that sealed Stefan’s fate which allowed the plot to madly veer towards proper Black Mirror technotragedy – after what felt like an outtake blooper. I went off-script just like Stefan did in the window escape, but I’m glad I got the opportunity to break the whole system and reset after what amounts to an offscreen “CUT” gag!

    The ending Emily got feels like one of two “right” endings, the other being if Stefan dismembers and stores his dad instead of burying him for the dogs to find he has time to finish the game, it gets a perfect rating but pulled off the shelves due to its author being a *murderer* and Stefan’s monologue about giving his players the *illusion* of choice while still maintaining authorial control felt *correct* and satisfying to me. Then you get to see Pearl (!) in the future, similarly cursed to obsessively create a game that will likely end up branching her realities.

    One thing I did also notice – many of the choices weren’t just a strict branch. Bandersnatch *remembers* what happened (sort of like Clementine?). If you have Colin jump off the balcony and wake up – it’s all a nightmare and you go to the therapist instead – Colin goes missing for the rest of that reality even though his plot points are relayed by other characters. I was shocked after a complete restart when I skipped going to Colin’s after seeing both possibilities just to save time, and Colin *remained in the story* because we never even approached a reality where there was a balcony scene.

    The safe combination also changes – there are four different codes that can be offered, and I think which two you get are based on your previous path there. There are TOY and PAC, but also PAX which summons the demon who kills you in a jump scare, and the initials of the author of Bandersnatch who similarly kills you. If you don’t talk to the therapist about your mom, you won’t know what numbers to dial at the end, and although I didn’t hit this, apparently the mirror in the flashback cracks so young Stefan can’t go through it and replace the rabbit. It’s a lot more complex than a standard time-cave. Typing the phone number was satisfying, even though the therapist signposted *hilariously* that you might learn something “important”. I read that the rehash of the phone number was added after beta-testing because nobody had thought to remember all the numbers casually mentioned in the scene. I loved that knowledge from certain realities could inform others.

    I hope Netflix or Black Mirror do more of this, although it will be hard to repeat such a fusion of a plot and presentation to hinge upon each other so well as does Bandersnatch.

  3. I watched/played Bandersnatch with three of my kids (Angie-17, Tori-15, Ben-14) and it was surprisingly entertaining. Tori and I actually laughed really hard when the we became part of the story. Ben and Angie had mixed emotions and never truly engaged.

    We did get to the rare ending but I had hoped there was an ending where he does break through…but thus is Black Mirror and I dislike the main show for this very reason. So often the joke is on you, the watcher.

  4. Something I just learned today — Netflix has done some A/B testing with the show itself, so it’s quite possible the version one person has access to is slightly different than another’s.

      • Nope – just it got mentioned in the most recent Game Informer interview. (Typically they’re kept private because it would mess with the experiment.)

        It’s more likely it has to do with interface than with anything fundamental to the structure, since people are looking at guides and would be confused if something was off.

  5. Pingback: Bandersnatch enthusiasts: – HYPERTEXT LINK LABYRINTH BACK END SUPPORT BLOG

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